Top Pop Music Artists Of The '80s

The length and order could be debatable, but there's no doubt a core list of the most essential '80s artists serves as a fine place to start any exploration of the decade's pop and rock music. The musicians on the list combined cultural clout with musical talent, image and good timing to shape all things that have come to be described with the adjective "eighties."

of 08


Madonna in New York, 1984.
Michael Putland/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

So where else should we start? There were a lot of superstars that populated and fueled the '80s, but no one generated his or her stardom as organically and completely within the decade as the Material Girl. Bursting onto the scene with an original sound, bombshell image and overarching confidence, Madonna never needed anything but a one-name moniker to announce her presence. She was the star; everyone else was lucky to stand in the shadow of her light.

of 08

Michael Jackson

PLEASE USE 42-59571239
Sygma via Getty Images / Getty Images

Though the King of Pop had been a music star for years before 1982's "Thriller," the release of that album launched him so far into the stratosphere that he ended up permanently discolored. Well, maybe that wasn't precisely how it happened, but Jackson was certainly the most earth-shattering '80s music phenom, and his overwhelming popularity that took hold during the mid- 80s often overshadows just how good the tunes are on his signature album. The concept of superstardom has never been the same.

of 08


Prince in Concert
Sygma via Getty Images / Getty Images

Through sheer force of charisma and musical versatility, Prince would have been the top male pop star in any decade not featuring Michael Jackson at the top of his game. As it was, His Purple Majesty recorded several essential albums and produced a stunningly diverse body of work as high in quality as in occasional controversy. Prince would have ruled any decade quite handily in his prime, but the '80s were a perfect fit for his flamboyant and often sensual approach to rock and roll.

of 08

Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston at Nelson Mandela Freedom Concert
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

This young star with the sterling bloodline was quite simply the purest and best female pop singer of the decade. And although she may have operated most often in the middle of the road artistically speaking, the hit singles and platinum albums don't lie. Houston displayed a savvy sense of self-presentation that helped her perfectly combine technical vocal skill with wholesome good looks to strike gold in the MTV age.

of 08

The Police

British Rock Band 'The Police' in Concert
Sygma via Getty Images / Getty Images

One of the decade's premier bands both commercially and artistically, this talented trio cut a swath through the charts and always retained its trailblazer edge. Merging rock, punk, reggae and pop in constantly challenging ways, the band made the most of a brief existence, offering up diverse albums as well as arguably the finest single of the decade in "Every Breath You Take." Sadly, the internal dissension that served as the band's creative fuel prematurely spelled the end of The Police.

of 08


Photo of U2
Redferns / Getty Images

This highly consistent but also artistically adventurous Irish band emerged as the first alternative music superstars of the '80s. But Bono & Co. labored long and hard for several years before their breakthrough with "The Joshua Tree" in 1987. Over the course of the decade, the band skillfully ran the gamut from post-punk hard rock to politically charged electric folk to slick atmospheric pop. And through it all, this breadth of talent has placed them among the most important bands of all time.

of 08


R.E.M. portrait sessiion
Images Press / Getty Images

America's college rock answer to U2 was this Athens, Ga. band that likewise used a solid, workmanlike '80s output to secure superstardom in the '90s. However, the band's earliest work undoubtedly stands as its most impressive and groundbreaking. Almost single-handedly responsible for the popular spread of guitar-based indie rock that took place in the '90s, R.E.M.'s often gentle, introspective and dense narrative songs drew their power from precision and a focused vision.

of 08

John Mellencamp

John Mellencamp At Farm Aid 2
WireImage / Getty Images

Starting off the decade with an entirely different, cynically manufactured surname did not stop Mellencamp from posting album after album of high-quality heartland rock. And his stunning consistency did not even reach its peak until his third high-profile release, 1985's "Scarecrow," which still stands as not only a career magnum opus but a cornerstone album of all time. To top it off, Mellencamp's folk and rock instincts were always buoyed by a highly literate songwriting sense.